Jihadica’s founder returns

Jihadica has been at the forefront of terrorism/counterterrorism related blogging.  Jihadica’s founder, Dr. Will McCants, is back after a two-year break from the blogging world. Will has taken a new position and can now rejoin his old blog.  Even better, McCants will be contributing along with Hegghammer and the best team of jihadi ideology experts in the world.  Jihadica, already at the top of the blogging world, is sure to be unmatched in their analysis of jihadi material.  Welcome back to Will and as always a shout-out to the folks at Jihadica.

Shout-Outs: Analysts of Terrorist Internet Use

I’ve observed maybe a hundred hours of “Terrorist Use of the Internet” classes/presentations over the past nine years.  Additionally, I’ve perused several hundred documents on “Terrorist Use of the Internet” and have seen every cable/TV news outlet broadcast of some form of “Terrorist Use of the Internet” story.

A standard “Terrorist Use of the Internet” briefing will have a lot of ‘scary’ pictures and ‘scary’ videos designed to shock the audience.   These presentations usually include:

  1. a picture of a baby or small child in a suicide bomber’s vest
  2. a jihadi wannabe singing a rap video that looks very similar to an American rap video (which I’ve never understood how a hardcore jihadi would be drawn to this since music, dancing, Western culture are supposedly sacrilegious)
  3. a video clip/picture of terrorists climbing on monkey bars and crawling under barbed wire
  4. a low quality video, filmed by a terrorist during an attack, displaying a sinister logo in one corner and ominous ‘terrorist’ music in the background

While these presentations/reports can be entertaining and engaging, 90% of them have been a complete waste of my time. Ultimately, I walk away from the majority of these sessions learning that terrorists use the Internet in the exact same fashion as other criminal organizations and most all other users of the Internet.

Today, I essentially listen to only two people reference “Terrorist Use of the Internet”:

  1. Aaron Weisburd of the University of Illinois-Chicago, the Internet Haganah and SOFIR
  2. Daniel Kimmage, Senior Fellow at the Homeland Security Policy Institute

I listen and read Aaron’s analysis because he tells me how I can analyze and understand what terrorist do on the Internet. The Internet Haganah explains to a technical novice, such as myself, what can be interpreted technically from terrorist Internet movements.  Aaron’s analysis of the actions and radicalization of terrorists, based on their Internet activity, informs action and policy.  I come away from his presentations empowered/equipped to do something about terrorist Internet use rather than entertained by it.

Daniel’s excellent analysis in the Radio Free Europe reports “Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War Of Images And Ideas” and “The Al-Qaeda Media Nexus” utilize a thorough research design, draw from specific datasets, and produce holistic findings.  Kimmage’s reports provide a complete review of jihadi media themes identifying key variables that drive jihadi Internet propaganda.  I walk away from his reports able to interpret terrorist Internet propaganda and then decipher their objectives within a cultural context.

In conclusion, Kimmage and Weisburd provide analysis that informs policy and action and I thank them for their efforts amidst a sea of unremarkable “Terrorist Use of the Internet” presentations and reports.

Tribal Stages & Countering Violent Extremism

David Logan’s TED talk on “Tribal Leadership” provides some interesting points for countering violent extremism (CVE).  Logan describes “tribes” as a, “group of about 20 to 150 people” where all individuals conduct their work and societal interactions.  Logan describes how tribes operate at five different levels.

Logan’s examination of Stage 1 and Stage 2 tribes offers some insight into how violent groups might be countered.  Logan explains how Stage 1 tribes consist of groups such as gangs, prisons and probably terrorist groups.   Stage 1 tribes, “sever relations from other functional tribes and pool together with people who think like they do.”   In this “Life Sucks” Stage 1 tribe, terrorist groups cut themselves off from society and within these insular groups reinforce their ideology and commitment to each other; resulting in violence.

Logan explains that “as people see the world, they behave.”  Thus in Stage 2 tribes, people see the world in a negative light and then behave negatively.  Members of a Stage 2 culture, “will do anything to survive, to include undermining other people.”

Logan’s message essentially asserts the best way to deal with lower stage tribes is not to counter them, but instead work to move those groups forward through the five stages.  Essentially, engage with Stage 1 & 2 tribes to move them along the stages of tribal development in order to alleviate their violent intentions.

Many CVE approaches focus on breaking up the group or reinforcing to the group why they are “wrong”.  While many find the “antagonize terrorists” approach appealing, antagonizing Stage 1 tribes (terrorists groups) only solidifies their exclusion from other tribes and reinforces their inward focus further strengthening justifications for violent extremism.

Logan’s research and discussion emphasizes the engagement of Stage 1 and 2 “tribes”. Current events in North Africa may provide the West a new opportunity to engage vulnerable communities and the Stage 1 terrorist tribes residing within them.  Additionally, Logan’s approach may be particularly helpful to those designing CVE approaches in the U.S. involving terrorist groups of all types; AQ, white supremacists, animal rights/environmental, and isolated lone wolf youths.  Logan’s incremental tribal approach is more applicable to different groups and not as narrowly focused as most AQ CVE solutions.





U.S. Airmen Shootings in Germany

The killing of two U.S. Airmen outside the Frankfurt airport has gotten very little coverage in the U.S. despite it appearing to be a clear act of terrorism on an American target.  As with most things right now, North African uprisings drown out all other media coverage.

Be sure to check out the Internet Haganah’s latest post on the Frankfurt shooters.  He’s done some of his eNinja work and has revealed far more on this attack than anything I’ve read in newspapers.  Great job Internet Haganah!


Shout-Outs: Jihadica’s Ideologists

For many years, my job centered on finding different experts in terrorism, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, regional/cultural studies, law enforcement, and military disciplines.  Thus far, I’ve identified expertise somewhat haphazardly through lots of different posts on a variety of topics.  Today, I’ll begin highlighting and tagging those experts I respect the most in a host of different categories.

Today’s category is al Qaeda “ideologists”.  These experts analyze AQ’s ideology and provide insight on the terror groups origins and their future direction.  For ideology instructors/experts, I look for a few factors.

1- Does the person speak Arabic? Those that claim you “don’t need to speak Arabic to understand AQ’s ideology”, can’t speak Arabic and thus don’t realize what they are missing in their analysis.  Arabic provides cultural as well as linguistic context to AQ’s militant ideology. Google translator doesn’t cut it.  For true experts in AQ’s ideology, reading and speaking Arabic yields deep insights that result in useful analysis. (BTW, I don’t know Arabic and I’m not an expert on AQ’s ideology.)

2- Has the person lived in the region? I have no idea how someone can understand and pontificate about AQ’s ideology and its resonance with vulnerable populations if they have not spent substantial time in North Africa, the Middle East or South Asia.  Two-day conference trips don’t count.  True experts can relate their experience in the region with what is being said and written by AQ’s ideological leaders.

3- Can they answer questions about AQ’s future direction? About five years ago, I watched some so-called “AQ ideology experts” repeatedly predict the fall of Western civilization at the hands of AQ’s ever expanding ideological march to form a global caliphate.  Funny, recent protests in Arab countries seem to indicate the exact opposite outcome.  Ideology experts can use historical context, personal experience, Arabic language skills and religious knowledge to provide a credible vision of AQ’s future direction.

4- Do they conduct original research? Type “al Qaeda ideology” in Google and you’ll get millions of articles that largely reiterate a weak understanding of AQ’s tenets.  However, true AQ ideology experts will craft sound, empirical research designs that reveal new insights based on original sources. For a good recent example, see Vahid Brown’s discussion of Sayf al-‘Adl’s recent revisionist posts.  This is really good stuff.

In short, Jihadica’s contributors plus a few others essentially make up the top tier of AQ ideologists. I’m probably missing a couple in this short list and will add them in the future.

  • Dr. Will McCants- Founder of Jihadica and creator of the Militant Ideology Atlas
  • Dr. Thomas Hegghammer– Current Jihadica editor and member of FFI in Norway.
  • Dr. Brynjar Lia– Jihadica contributor and Head of FFI, Norway’s international terrorism research division.
  • Vahid Brown- Author of Cracks in the Foundation
  • Dr. Asad Ahmed– Professor, Washington University

That’s my short list for now and I’ll add to it on the Expert List over the coming weeks.

Egypt’s Google Dude

I’ve been complaining for the past two weeks about the virtual Twitter Revolt in Egypt and the lack of a transition to a physical, organized movement that brings about real change.  My concerns arise from the lack of a formal organization and a transformational leader to guide the social movement to achieve real objectives beyond protest.

Well, yesterday may have been the most important day so far in Egypt.  I’m very fired up about Wael Ghonim, Egypt’s Google executive recently released from detention. His evening news interview and subsequent speech may have finally provided what this uprising really needs: a transformational leader to get behind.  Ghonim brought the intensity of protests back over night and truly inspired people.  While I’m more optimistic today than yesterday, there remain many questions.

  1. How does the U.S. and the West get behind Egypt’s Google dude? The West is used to getting behind old, stately characters that promise stability and mirror the appearance of Western Democratic leaders.  Ghonim is not the traditional type, and I’m not sure the West knows how to support him.
  2. How does Ghonim’s inspiration join with the security and stability the Egyptian military must provide? This is a tough one.  Hierarchical (vertical) military apparatus linked up with flat (horizontal) protest leader-this is a really tough one.  The military is the key to a successful/peaceful transition.
  3. Is there an opposition organization or two that can join in with Ghonim’s inspiration to move this along? I don’t know, but am interested if anyone has some ideas.
  4. How does the opposition expand beyond the young students? I’m in Europe right now, and the coverage is a bit different from what I’ve been seeing in the States.  In the U.S., it’s just nonstop coverage about Tahrir square and Facebook.  In Europe, I’m seeing a lot more coverage of disgruntled Egyptians in the countryside that want life to return to normal and believe the entire protest movement is the work of the West.  The NY Times article noted that the protesters were largely students and children of wealthy families.  Long-run opposition and change will need more buy-in from those outside Tahrir Square.

Somalia: Terrorism’s Dark Corner, Part 2

To follow up on the past 3 posts about Somalia (1.0, 1.5, 1.75), I’ll return to a project I worked on four years back.  With Dr. Jacob Shapiro and a group of really solid researchers, I got to co-edit and co-write sections of al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa.  We based the research on declassified, al-Qaeda (AQ) documents found in Afghanistan detailing AQ’s forays into Somalia between 1992-1994.

AQ sent several teams of trainers to join Somali clans.  Through Special Forces-type methods, AQ envoys would provide training and equipment to Somali clans.  During this process, they would also begin proselytizing hoping their ideology would catch on.  In Somalia, AQ struggled for three reasons.

1- Weak states support terrorism better than failed states– As Dr. Ken Menkhaus has noted many times, failed states like Somalia are hard for everyone.  It doesn’t matter if your AQ or Western peacekeepers.  The cost of operating in chaos makes terrorism tough.

2- Clan trumps AQ–  AQ’s Somalia documents describe continuous clan fighting.  AQ operatives were focused on training Somalis to fight foreign occupiers. Somali clan members were more interested in the near enemy than the far enemy.  The Somalis trained by AQ chose to use their new skills more for settling clan rivalries than attacking UN peacekeepers. AQ also didn’t like how the Somali Shura Council was democratic in their decision-making.  AQ described the situation with the Somali Islamic Union as “Leave it, it is rotten tribalism.” AFGP-2002-800640. The latest Foreign Policy article suggests the same “clan fighting” dynamics persist today in Somalia.

3- AQ’s ideology didn’t stick–  AQ’s ideology couldn’t compete with Somali clan customs.  Often times, Salafi ideology lost out to local versions of Sufi Islam.  AQ calls the Sufis “Big Hairs”.  One document provides a funny story about the Sufi’s and Salafi’s arguing over a Toyota truck. AFGP-2002-600104

4- AQ found success in two ways in Somalia (despite persistent clan disasters)-

a.     Providing security in local areas–  When AQ provided local security to villages, they could win the respect of local clans allowing for the proselytizing of their ideology.  (Reminiscent of The Management of Savagery by Abu Bakr Naji) AQ explained:

“When our brothers were in the Kambooni, they were visited by the Bajuni who asked them to stay and govern, and secure the city. They have noticed that the presence of the brothers prevented the highwaymen from entering the city, and the fishermen began coming to the shore to spend the night in the city. They told our people that they do not want them to leave. They await the arrival of our wives and children. They freely gave fish to our people, and our people guarded the well while reading the Koran, and helped the fishermen get water.” AFGP-2002-600113

Later, Ras Kambooni became a hub for al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) activity.

b.     Attracting youth through propaganda

AQ found success attracting young recruits away from the tribes.  Somali youth had lower opportunity costs for joining AQ-affiliated groups than elder clan members.  Somali youth didn’t own businesses, were unmarried, loved stories of jihad, were less educated, and were far down in the clan pecking order. The “youth” would undertake military action and listen to indoctrination. Here are some interesting AQ quotes reference youth in Somalia.  (These are quotes from the translations, so they are a bit messy)

“The Majertain youth that joined our people are keeping away from the tribal ideology and are fighting in the name of God. Sheikh Hassan started to teach these young men (our dogma). From the political side, contacts were made with “Jihad” (Iskandari Union) supporters to join with us. Procedures were established to deal with the Ogaden tribe, particularly with those who are secular and highwaymen. As a result of this, our brethren earned the respect of the tribes, some of whose members want to join ranks with us. The situation we are experiencing right now is very hard to continue the jihad work in collective way but it is possible to continue with some youth groups that accomplish some operations.” AFGP-2002-800600

“but the youth that established the camps and lived in them, don’t see that the jihad is tied up with anything and most of those youth don’t think about establishing individual businesses.” AFGP-2002-800600

“Going back to the youth, they have a common characteristic which is the hastiness, and that superficial look toward things” AFGP-2002-800600

“the youth started their action in kees mayo city (Kismayo) in southern Somalia by getting engaged in its battle and the tribes men escaped before Aideed. There was 800 brothers in their camps and the escapees asked the youth to protect the city from Aideed provided that they would give up the airport, the harbor and the public utilities in the city for the youth. The youth agreed despite the fact that they smelled the deception…. Nevertheless, their youth learned at last that their elders thoughts is far from theirs. We conclude the following: – The Sheikhs of the group were not Jihadi . the youth were influenced by hearing about the Afghani Jihad. The youth of the young men along with insufficiency of their experience and rashness toward the matters without deliberation hindered their effectiveness.” AFGP-2002-800621

“Finally we need to establish a coordination and communications center to connect the youth in the different areas in and out of the country. It is important to strengthen the unity between the people. This is very important in Jihad.” AFGP-2002-800640

“Jihad radio stations operating in Yemen and Somalia will have a more powerful effect on them than nuclear bombs.” AFGP-2002-600053

There are lots of good quotes in the Harmony documents reference youth recruitment. I only selected these as a few examples. I find the time frame of these AQ statements interesting.  I alluded in a previous post that AQ shifted their strategy based on the influence of Zawahiri and their failures in Somalia.  As seen above, AQ shifted their focus in the early 1990’s to linking youth recruits together through coordination and communication centers.  During the 90’s they established offices, today they accomplish this through the Internet.  While the linking of youth recruitment globally expanded with the Internet, the effectiveness of these modern AQ  “youth recruits” is questionable.

Ironically, al-Shabab means “The Youth”.  AQ does discuss a group in Kismayo that was the  “Islamic Youth Union” that originated from Muslim Brotherhood influence. It’s unclear from the documents where the name al-Shabab originates: the Muslim Brotherhood initiated youth group or AQ calling them the youth. Does anyone know?

It also seems like there would be an age limit on being a member of “The Youth/al-Shabab”.  Kind of like Menudo, you can’t be older than a certain age.  It would be weird to have a 50-year old leader of “The Youth”.  However, the short lifespan of al-Shabab members probably makes this a non-issue.

Terrorists, the Internet, and Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker article “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” provides a valuable counterargument for those convinced all terrorist recruitment occurs via the Internet.

Gladwell argues that strong-tie, physical relationships create high-risk activism such as civil rights protests or even terrorism, while weak-tie, virtual relationships fail to effectively mobilize resistance groups.  He explains social media’s weak tie ineffectiveness in high-risk activism writing,

“Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

Gladwell later continues,

“High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon… One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen-seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization. The same is true of the men who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena.”

Gladwell’s argument and article have received considerable resistance from social media zealots; many with valid points.  One always runs the risk of major backlash when using social media to publish an article about social media’s limitations.

However, Gladwell’s argument provides a much needed counter to those that believe social media is the engine for all human action.  I’ve always doubted that the Internet produces large droves of foreign fighter terrorist recruits as most recruitment globally (90% or more) occurs locally via social, family and religious connections; strong-tie relationships.  The high-risk terrorist activism conducted by foreign fighter recruits comes from the bonds of friends not Facebook.  The two largest and most recent AQ-inspired recruitments in the U.S., Minneapolis and North Carolina, illustrate the exponential recruiting power of strong-tie physical relationships.

To caveat quickly before the ePundits begin yelling about “how the Internet has changed the world” and consume me in their Gladwell backlash. (I’m fine with that actually, as Gladwell explained, its doubtful that any of these social media zealots would confront me with high-risk activism)  The Internet remains and always will be a valuable secondary radicalization tool to physical relationships. I’ve written in the past in Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?,

“While AQ mass media propaganda is an important factor in the war of ideas, it should be addressed more in Western counterterrorism efforts in Western countries where socially isolated second and third generation Muslims and Western converts have limited direct access to militant ideologies, limited access to veteran foreign fighters, increased access to the Internet, and a propensity to access militant websites.”

I believe the Internet likely recruits a small fraction of terrorists globally and assists in radicalizing a larger portion of recruits already recruited via strong-tie relationships.

The Internet and social media is a recruitment mechanism for socially-isolated, Western terrorist recruits.  These folks (Long-Tail Losers, another post later this week) may get recruited via social media and the Internet because they lack strong-tie, physical relationships.  Thus, these eRecruits interpret their weak-tie relationships with terrorist social media as their strongest tie.  Samir Khan, the American AQAP recruit to Yemen, represents this style of terrorist recruit.

While I don’t doubt this Internet recruitment occurs, I do doubt how much of it occurs.  How many people that visit terrorist websites and do not have a strong-tie physical relationship with another terrorist are actually recruited each year?  I don’t know.  But if I had to guess, I’d say no more than two dozen globally.

Ultimately, I believe we should try to disrupt AQ recruitment on the Internet.  However, I hope Western CT folks don’t deceive themselves into believing they are significantly degrading terrorist recruitment by ‘tweeting’ and ‘friending’.

(Un) Inspire (d) Terrorism, Volume 2

Western terrorism analysts jumped with excitement over the release of the English jihadi magazine Inspire, volume two.  American analysts get really excited about this magazine because it’s in English, so they can actually read it without translator support.  If I had to guess, I’d estimate that 75% of all people that read this magazine are Western counterterrorism analysts.

Thankfully, two reviews of this new Inspire issue take a reasonable approach.  Internet Haganah and Thomas Hegghammer at Jihadica provide informed reviews illustrating the obvious weaknesses of the magazine.  Meanwhile, several of the “ePundits searching for iJihad” make this magazine out as a revolution in modern terrorism.  These Western analysts are horribly misguided.  They cannot explain why this new batch of jihadi literature would inspire someone more than the millions of pieces of jihadi propaganda currently on the Internet (in fact, much of this content is recycled old stuff).  At this point, there is no evidence that a significant number of new recruits are inspired by this publication. I’m certain that one or two zealous terrorist recruits who happened to read this magazine will ultimately commit attacks.  But, Inspire will be only one of hundreds of propaganda pieces that assisted in radicalizing these new recruits.

The only people we can be certain are inspired by this magazine are Western analysts who make money by speaking and writing about its ‘danger’, and government analysts who receive attention for hyping its threat.  Inspire will only motivate Westerners to participate in terrorism if we hype it to such a level that new recruits think it must be legitimate. The magazine itself recommends recruits access jihadi propaganda from ePundit monitoring sites that repost the magazine.  So thank you ePundits for making it easier for terrorists.

Here are my quick thoughts on Inspire.

This volume points to a serious leadership vacuum in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and in al Qaeda (AQ) globally.  Thomas mentions that Samir Khan, the magazine’s author, remains relatively removed from the center of AQAP based on the magazine’s content.  I agree. Khan’s writings reflect exactly what he is; a guy who used to sit in his parent’s basement writing angry thoughts in private and being meek in public.

Khan’s strategy recommends low cost operations in America.  Khan advises new recruits not to travel abroad, not to use mobile phones or the Internet, not to interact with other activists, and not to access jihadi websites.  According to this strategy, I’m not sure how any follower would acquire Inspire magazine, volume 3.  Essentially, Khan has proposed a strategy that resembles the thoughts of a young, socially-isolated, basement dweller.  Khan is a tactical and strategic novice that can make flashy webpages.  Yes, he may execute a lesser Ft. Hood attack someday when he hits age 30 and still hasn’t found a girlfriend.

Khan’s strategy provides a diluted strategic vision for AQAP and AQ as a whole.  I imagine Abu Musab al-Suri, AQ’s noteworthy strategist, would be extremely frustrated by such a weak plan of action.  Shooting sprees and mowing down of pedestrians on crowded streets; these are not the attacks of strategic vision.  Khan’s suggested strategy is more similar to the approach of anarchist groups.  Khan’s “get your jihad on at home” approach:

1) points to no apparent strategic goal; how would this support the formation of a caliphate, promote Islamic law, deface a symbolic American target, or weaken the U.S.?

2) regurgitates attacks Khan watched in the states; Major Hassan’s 2009 shooting spree and the University of North Carolina (UNC) SUV Attack in 2006.

3) tells new recruits to remain isolated and harder to detect, and thus less likely to execute a meaningful attack.  There is always a tradeoff between security and operational control for terrorist groups, but this approach errors on the extreme side of security.  This isolation approach is harder for law enforcement and intelligence to detect, and is also not likely to produce a respectable attack either.

4) weakens AQ’s base of support.  Should a recruit execute these one-off attacks, they are unlikely to achieve significant media time or significant effect. The UNC driving attack hardly created a blip on the radar.  Instead, these do-it-yourself attacks will likely fail and appear the work of fools. This version of AQ-inspired terrorism looks amateurish and further alienates an ever decreasing base of popular support.

Ultimately, our over-reacting, public response to Khan’s proposed attacks will be the only thing that can empower his plan.